Preventing suicide can start with a simple hello


Don’t ignore the signs

Nathan Lowther
Martlet – University of Victoria

VICTORIA (CUP) — Saving a life can be as easy as starting a conversation, especially when it’s suicide threatening that life, says Jonny Morris.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Canadians aged 15–24. And, while university and college students are half as likely to die by suicide as comparables in the general population, some studies suggest that more than one in 10 post-secondary students have thought about killing themselves.

Thinking about suicide might not sound like much, but according to Morris, a suicide prevention researcher and educator with the B.C. Healthy Minds/Healthy Campuses initiative, it is.

“Any kind of suicidal behaviour at any level needs to be taken very, very seriously,” he said. “In any form it takes – the casual Facebook posting right through to the person that might make an attempt. As a community we need to take that seriously and respond in caring, compassionate, supportive, thoughtful ways that help ramp up the reasons for people wanting to stay alive.”

Suicidal behaviours can be exhibited in a variety of ways. One visible and familiar form is drug and alcohol abuse.

“Often substances affect how we think and affect our ability to not do things that might hurt ourselves,” said Morris. “I think substances are a huge issue on campus … and that’s a key commitment to the project – supporting students to have healthier relationships with substances.”

Other telltale signs that a friend or classmate may be contemplating suicide are less obvious and more subjective. Or, in the case of “ideation,” easily dismissed as just joking around.

“If someone is talking about suicide … even making a throw-away comment or joke about suicide … thinking about suicide is quite a strong predictor that they are at risk of suicidal behaviour,” said Morris.

Something else to watch for is extreme mood swings. Being exceedingly down for long periods, or drastic changes in temperament, should be noted and discussed says Morris. Morris adds that its close association with mental illness has stigmatized suicide. While granting that this association has a factual basis, Morris cautions against exclusionary thinking.

“Suicide is very dominantly formed in relation to mental illness. [But] if our focus is solely on mental illness, are we missing opportunities for prevention?”

This thinking also risks simplifying suicide to an issue belonging in mental illness discourse. Morris points to the recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University, who killed himself after his roommate allegedly put video of Clementi engaging in a sexual encounter with another man on the Internet.

“So was that the result of mental illness or the result of something else, like homophobia for example?” asked Morris.

Homophobia represents one example of what Morris calls a “socio-contextual factor” that can lead to suicide.

Race and cultural expectations, something a foreign exchange student might experience, are another; but these conversations tend to centre on demographics rather than look at any underlying causes.

“It’s about looking at the practices of homophobia, or the practices of colonialism and their relationship to suicide,” Morris said. “My hunch is that they have a relationship.”

These factors are exacerbated by an increasing cultural isolation in an age of technology. “We’re all on the bus and we’re all plugged-in in various different ways rather than interacting in conversation,” said Morris. “This helps the isolation grow.”

And this isolation kills. Luckily, it is also easily overcome.

“Being open to engage relationally with someone, to reach out to someone and have a conversation with that person, is key. I think connection is the key thing … and not just [for] people I know. I might be concerned about someone who is isolated who I might not be connected with,” Morris said. “Be open to listening compassionately.”

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